I am convinced that the best measure of a church’s music is not what takes place on the stage, but what takes place in the pews. It is not so much the sounds and sights of a band leading, but the sounds and sights of a congregation worshipping. A church with a truly great music program is the one that could worship just as well on the day the power goes out and the instruments won’t play. A church with a truly great music program is the one that generates far more sound from its raw voices than its amplified instruments. A church with a truly great music program is the one where the people sing—they really sing.
I was recently thinking through what our churches do to train and equip our congregations to sing. The Bible does, after all, command us all to sing as a core part of our ministry to one another (see Colossians 3:16). Besides our worship services, we tend to have all kinds of teaching and training opportunities—we have Bible studies and youth groups, we have classes for systematic theology, parenting, and Bible knowledge. But few churches have opportunities to train our congregations to sing. Our bands practice and our choirs rehearse, but we rarely instruct the whole congregation. We rarely create opportunities to teach new songs, to teach them to sing those songs in parts, to help them grow in their skill. Singing is one of the few parts of the worship service in which every person participates and serves, yet we rarely train our congregations to participate and serve well in this key ministry.
If you’d like your church to have a great music program, perhaps it would be worth asking this: How are we training our church to sing?
With those challenges in mind, here is my observation: The most successful worship leaders are the ones who want to hear their congregations sing—to really sing. The most successful worship leaders are the ones most attuned to the musical ability of their congregations and the ones most committed to choosing songs their people can sing. They prioritize these factors over a host of others.
The simple fact is, there are many songs that have solid content and catchy tunes, but are poorly suited to congregational singing. There are many songs that are a joy to sing along to in the car, but difficult to sing with a congregation. There are many songs that are written first for radio and only secondarily for corporate singing. “Forever” by Kari Jobe sure sounds nice when she sings it, but it isn’t going to sound so nice when your church tries. “Lead Me To the Cross” may have an inspiring message, but let’s hear your church attempt and master that bridge. Sometimes songs are pitched too high or too low, or they go in unexpected directions, or they demand too much vocal range, or the bridge is just too different from the rest of the song. Sometimes they just aren’t suited to a crowd of amateur singers. And that’s the thing about us—we are amateurs.
I’m convinced what’s happening in so many congregations is that the worship leader chooses songs that are either poorly-suited to congregational singing or beyond the skill of his church. He hears a new song, falls in love with it, and for the best of motives wants to sing it with the people he loves and leads. He practices and masters it, he rehearses it with the band, and it sounds great. But when he brings it to the service on Sunday, it’s well beyond the ability of his people. The church tries, but sings it poorly, sings it softly, or otherwise barely sings it at all. Because the singing is so poor, the sound guy cranks up the volume of the instruments and the lead vocalists. Congregational singing has morphed into performance. And it could all be fixed if the worship leader set as his goal to really hear his people sing.
Let me draw an analogy. I think of a dad who buys his six-year-old young son his first Lego kit. Dad’s excited that his son finally wants to play with Lego, so he splurges and buys one of those amazing kits with hundreds and hundreds of pieces. It’s an amazing toy that will look great when it’s done, but it’s well beyond his son’s ability. So dad steps in to “help.” He helps by doing pretty much all the work—he reads the manual, he snaps the pieces together, he takes it to completion while his son sits by and watches. At the end of it all the boy takes the finished kit to mom and says, “Look what I built!” But he hasn’t really built it at all, has he? I’m convinced this is what happens at many churches today. The band has a great time on stage. They sing well and worship freely. But the congregation doesn’t. It can’t. The music is beyond them and, to be frank, wasn’t truly prepared for them in the first place.
A worship leader serves his congregation best when he chooses songs they can sing and sing well. He is highly attuned to their ability. He prioritizes the singability of songs over their newness or oldness or author or theological density. He gauges his success not by his own worship, but by theirs. His question is not “how did the band feel?” but “how did the congregation sing?” When he steps back and hears his church singing—really singing—, his joy is complete.
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